SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Ted Cruz is among the most hated men in Washington, reviled by leaders of both parties as an ideological hard-liner loyal only to the far-right of the conservative movement.
But racing down an Iowa highway on a snowy weekend morning, a solemn Cruz suggested some of his Republican rivals for president have amped up their rhetoric too much — especially on policy toward people who are in the U.S. illegally.
"Tone matters," Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant, told The Associated Press in an interview between campaign stops. "Are there some in the Republican Party whose rhetoric is unhelpful with regard to immigration? Yes."
Donald Trump's call for a database to track Muslims in the U.S. is one example, Cruz says. But he refused to condemn the rhetoric of another Republican who could help him win Iowa's leadoff caucuses, Rep. Steve King, the influential conservative who has described immigrants living in the country illegally as disease-ridden — and spent the weekend campaigning at Cruz's side.
"I cannot help the language that others use," Cruz said in the interview. "I can only help the words that come out of my own mouth."
Taken together, they are remarkable statements for a conservative firebrand who rarely, if ever, shows signs of moderation. Yet in the crowded and unruly 2016 Republican primary, Cruz is trying to position himself as the grown-up alternative to Trump and Ben Carson, two inexperienced and undisciplined front-runners who have so far captivated their party's most passionate voters by riding a wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Carson's support appears to be softening, and Trump is struggling to explain with precision his exact plans for increasing surveillance of potential threats in the wake of the Paris attacks. At the same time, Cruz is ramping up his pitch and trying to cast himself not just as an outsider — but an electable outsider at a time of widespread mistrust of Washington.
"I do not believe either one of them is going to be the nominee," Cruz told the AP about Carson and Trump. "I am working very hard to win every one of their supporters."
Cruz spoke to AP at the end of a week in which Carson, who previously said he wouldn't support a Muslim president, likened dealing with some Syrian refugees to the handling of "rabid dogs" and said he would support government monitoring of any group deemed radical and "anti-American."
Having described Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals in his announcement speech, Trump this week said he would "absolutely" support a mandatory database to track Muslims in the U.S. He later said he wanted a "watch list" for Syrian refugees and "surveillance of certain mosques."
To be sure, Cruz has reacted aggressively to the Paris attacks and his is targeting the same slice of the Republican electorate as the two front-runners. He introduced legislation this week entitled the "Terrorist Refugee Infiltration Prevention Act" that would allow U.S. entry only to Christians fleeing war-torn Syria. That comes after Cruz, whose Cuban-born father first immigrated to Canada and then to the U.S., last week outlined an immigration policy that would dramatically increase deportations, add hundreds of miles to the wall on the Mexican border and suspend a program that grants work visas to high-skilled immigrants, a reversal of his previous position.
But the Harvard-educated attorney who served five years as the Texas solicitor general has done so while avoiding the explosive language employed by Trump and Carson, which critics say reeks of xenophobia — if not outright bigotry.
"I am the son of an immigrant who came from Cuba with nothing, came here legally," Cruz said. "And my view, which I think the vast majority of Americans share, is very simple: Legal good. Illegal bad."
And yet even while suggesting some Republicans have gone too far with their rhetoric, Cruz spent the weekend campaigning alongside Iowa Rep. King, a favorite of evangelical voters and one of his party's most outspoken hardliners on the issue.
King, who endorsed Cruz this week, has described immigrants living in the country illegally as disease-ridden and compared them to drug mules and livestock. He is perhaps best-known for a 2013 comment attacking children of such immigrants: "For everyone who's a valedictorian, there's another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they've got calves the size of cantaloupes because they've been hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert."
With King riding in the second vehicle of Cruz's two-car caravan, Cruz refused to condemn such comments when pressed. He also declined to name any Republicans whose rhetoric on immigration has been "unhelpful."
"I am not going to approach this election like a theater critic — giving my reviews of every word uttered by every other Republican," Cruz said. "I'm going to focus on my message."
And while that message may be tempered compared to that of Trump and Carson, Cruz's efforts to paint himself as the electable outsider haven't won over some of his critics.
"I have serious reservations at this point about Ted Cruz," said Alfonso Aguilar, a Republican who served in the George W. Bush administration and now leads the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles
"He's allied himself with Steve King," Aguilar said, suggesting that Cruz has turned his back on his immigrant roots.
King, meanwhile, heaped praise on Cruz as they crisscrossed Iowa together. The congressman introduced the presidential contender as "the man I believe will restore America's soul."
Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Des Moines contributed to this report.